About 25 years ago, not long after graduating with his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, John Miller set about painting one picture a day, which, as it turned out, went on for nine months. He emerged from this ordeal, he later wrote, convinced that “the physical transfer of material, pigment suspended in acrylic medium, to the surface of the canvas in slow, even, repetitive strokes, which sealed off the surface of the canvas from top to bottom” amounted not to soul-baring illumination, as the Abstract Expressionists might have it, but to tedious repression. There had to be a better way.
After much trial and error with acrylic paint and modelling clay, Miller devised the perfect brown gunk to slather over dioramas of rustic villages; mod outfits on vacant-eyed mannequins; a lone Styrofoam sphere suspended in space; a higgledy-piggledy heap of worn hardbacks, and so forth.
“The way I started thinking about aesthetics was very much influenced by 1960s politics and Herbert Marcuse’s idea of repressive desublimation,” the thoughtful, seemingly shy, and funny associate professor of professional practice in art history explains in his bare office on the top floor of the College’s spanking-new Diana Center. (Freud coined the term “sublimation” to explain how we express our baser instincts in socially acceptable forms.) Making art can become a respectable, adult version of the infantile urge to play with scat. Miller used his goopy brown impasto to act out this process of suppression and improvement. “It’s art about art with a psychoanalytic detour,” he says.
Miller has never limited himself to brown—or even to the gold impasto that later superseded it. Part of the pioneering generation of multimedia artists, he doesn’t define himself in genre terms. He doesn’t consider himself a sculptor, a painter, or a photographer, but rather an artist who uses whichever medium best suits “the set of concerns I have at the time.” He has worked in installation, photo, painting, Flash-animated music, and he has played loud electric guitar in art-noise bands. At the College, he teaches photography and drawing as well as a course in art criticism, at which he is prolific and penetrating. But what is consistent is the work’s concern with how art is woven into the social fabric. Miller’s art is intellectually rich, physically undeniable, and, if you allow it to be, hilarious.
“I saw the brown works,” as he politely refers to them, “as largely psychological and symbolic gestures. I try to cultivate a perverse humor that tempers expectations so the things I’m working with don’t become foregone conclusions. And part of the humor of the brown pieces is how mild and low stakes they are.”
But not everyone found them mild or funny when they first extruded themselves on the scene, in the ’80s and early ’90s. The culture wars were raging and the art world was on edge about displaying the body and its functions. “People would come up to me and say, ‘I hate to tell you, but your work makes me physically ill.’”
The curator of one group show installed his contribution next to a horse-manure painting. Miller re-enacts his horror—“No! No!”—and laughs ruefully. “That was one of the worst moments.” American critics largely ignored him, but some were enthusiastic—“the brown version of Yves Klein,” as one writer put it in a nod to the Frenchman who made his name with a special shade of blue.
For a good chunk of his career, Miller was associated with brown—if he was recognized at all. While friends who mined a similar homespun, mildly perverse and comic vein, such as Mike Kelley, picked up accolades and museum exhibitions, Miller kept on, buoyed up by positive reception in Europe; regular shows at the esteemed Metro Pictures in New York and the Galerie Barbara Weiss in Berlin; and the pleasures and challenges of the work itself. Recognition grew slowly. Then suddenly it exploded.
New York critic Jerry Saltz, who 10 years earlier had scratched his head over some of Miller’s work, wrote a glowing review of “The New Honeymooners,” a 2007 show at the Friedrich Petzel and Metro Pictures galleries. Last year, the contemporary art museum Kunsthalle Zürich honored Miller with a comprehensive retrospective that included his “paintings of paintings,” as he puts it, the brown and subsequent gold reliefs and sculptures, as well as a mammoth digitized slideshow of an ongoing photo project he has pursued for a dozen years. And for its January 2010 issue, ArtForum made the Zürich show its cover story, with Miller’s 20 art gracing that cover—the best piece of art-magazine real estate in the country.
“This is the most attention I’ve ever had,” the artist acknowledges. “I certainly don’t take it for granted.” But the quality of the attention seems to matter more. He recently presented his work at the University of Illinois and afterwards, Hamza Walker, associate curator at the Renaissance Society, exclaimed happily, “Your work is really goofy and wacky and messy!” “I don’t think he meant just the brown impasto,” Miller reflects, “but the logic of how things go together. The associations are like opening a big can of worms.”
Take, for example, The Office Party and the Communist Party, the disarmingly gorgeous 1991 relief that ArtForum chose for its cover—made up of plastic sausages, pretzels, pineapples, apples, turnips, and grapes, plus squashed Coke cans, all rising out of Miller’s signature brown pigment. If you squint, the pretzel and sausage seem to form a hammer and sickle.
Miller spent a year in Berlin on an academic exchange fellowship shortly after the Wall fell. (His wife, photographer Aura Rosenberg, their daughter, Carmen, a junior in art history at Columbia, and he have since made the city a second home.) “The falling of the Wall was idealized at the time,” he recalls. “The resentment toward East Germans hadn’t come up yet.” He wanted to puncture the epic stature of the Communist Party “and bring that together with my experience working as a temp.”
“I temped for 10 years before I started teaching. My longest gig was with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, where I typed and retyped tax manuals. The worst part was the office events. If you were a temp, you didn’t really fit in but you couldn’t really be excluded either, so you’re sitting on the periphery balancing a piece of cake on a paper plate.”
Without being overtly autobiographical, The Office Party and the Communist Party catches the vibe of squashed celebration and exuberant tackiness, abjectitude and marshalled enthusiasm, and has caused this viewer, at least, to burst out laughing.
Miller is pleased. “Art is only difficult if you think it is,” he notes. He remembers how one of the very dioramas that made adults nauseous 20 years ago prompted middle school students to get down on their hands and knees at eye level with the sculpture and eagerly investigate its nooks and crannies. “It was at the Whitney Biennial in 1991, and I was cleaning the piece—this landscape with reclining figures, a sort of Gulliver’s Travels thing that required some maintenance,” he recalls. “The kids said, ‘Neat! Cool!’ It was a gratifying response.”
And he is not appalled if you find the work “beautiful.” When I blurt out that the massive balls of plastic fruit he made for the Kitakyushu Biennial in 2007 strike me that way, he says, “Oh, thanks. I never wanted to make something that shouted, ‘Hey, I’m beautiful.’ But I try to make everything beautiful, at least to me. I figure, if I think it’s beautiful, it will take care of itself.”
Miller is an appealing combination of theoretical and cultural savvy, on one hand, and lack of pretension, on the other. He questions the usual truisms about art such as its timelessness and pricelessness—“Everything has a time and a price,” he says—and yet accepts that a work might stir a person in ways that defy explanation, at least for the moment. This incongruity may stem from the divide between where he grew up and where he ended up, as an artist and a citizen.
He was raised in the improbably named Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a bastion of Republicanism. His father, a paint salesman, would take him and his younger brother, now an accountant, on sales calls, rewarding them at the end of the day with sample tins, which they’d use for model planes.
The local art scene was big on regionalist painting, with the nearby Amish figuring largely. “It was kind of nostalgic, not very adventuresome—didn’t ask a lot of questions,” he points out. Still, by age 13, he had decided to become an artist—“to make things and show them.” He drew and painted, did ceramics and made assemblages.
By high school, his parents had divorced and money was scarce. To fund his bachelor’s of fine art, he was planning to join the Army. But then Kent State happened, members of Students for a Democratic Society visited his high school armed with Yippie films, and he began reading the underground newspapers. “There was no way I was going into the Army after that.”
He applied for scholarships. “The Rhode Island School of Design made the best offer, so I went there.” But it was at CalArts, where he received his MFA, that his mind got turned inside out. After a year, he says, “I was so overstimulated, I didn’t even know where to begin.” But that was the point: suddenly he could begin anywhere.
The teacher who left the biggest impression on him was the conceptual minimalist Michael Asher, best known for a 1974 piece that consisted simply of removing the wall between a Los Angeles gallery’s office and its exhibits space. Asher’s contribution to the current Whitney Biennial is to keep the museum open for 24 hours a day, three days straight.
“He would just walk into a room and say, ‘What are we going to talk about today?’” Miller recalls. “He was willing to sit out a 15-minute silence if need be. He knew exactly what he was doing by doing very little active intervening: he wanted to put students in the position of generating their own discourse, or make students realize that they already were. He was incredibly disciplined.”
Miller says he is not that “hardcore” at Barnard, where he has taught since 2000: “Asher’s technique presumes that everyone wants to be an artist, but this might be the only art class this person is going to take and they want to learn how to draw.” Miller is committed to maintaining a non- authoritarian presence, however, because he considers it essential to artistic thinking. “Some students get angry if you don’t present yourself as an authority, but I think that’s something that has to be worked through.”
In the photography class I observed, in which students took turns presenting works-in-progress while the rest of the class commented and asked questions, his remarks were spare and took their lead from how the presenter was characterizing the images. He told one student about an essay she might find helpful and offered some technical tips about digital printing to another. He never passed judgment on the work. When the discussion of one set of photographs had run its course, he exclaimed, “Thanks a lot!” and the next presenter lay out her goods. The class ambience was serious yet relaxed. The women were looking and thinking.
“There is a weird thing that happens when you make art,” Miller said later. “Almost everyone gets into it because it’s fun in a way. And then it gets professionalized. What was fun becomes a job. And most people embrace that, because it means their work is being embraced. But it does create some paradoxes; what you started as pleasure becomes work, and inevitably you start thinking of it as work.”
The students may take their fun very seriously, but it was clear they were having fun: a curious, probing kind, like Miller enjoys.
John Miller’s solo show of new paintings inspired by crying scenes on reality TV, “The Totality of Everything That Actually Exists,” runs through June 15 at the Galerie Barbara Weiss in Berlin. “The Grotesque,” a collaboration with Richard Hoeck, appears at Galerie Johann Widauer in Innsbruck, Austria, through July 15.
-Apollinaire Scherr, photographs by Andy Ryan